The old adage “the customer is always right” is completely wrong. The reason is simple: customers lie all the time. They might lie to try and get a better price. They might tell you they’re willing to pay for things they are not. They might even tell you there are all kinds of new competitors when there are none. They might also tell you everything is going great 24 hours before they cancel your contract. These might be lies, partial truths, or they might be misinformed attempts at truth. Who knows?
However, one thing I can tell you is this: The customer has all the answers. And it’s up to you to get the answers out of them. Think about that for a bit and you’ll recognize that there is a big difference between having all the answers, and always being right.
You need to get out there and talk to your customers. You need to discuss your business and product ideas with those people that would be your customers BEFORE you actually launch them. The same holds true AFTER you launch the products. Get out there, talk to your customers, and see what’s going on. Inside the building there are opinions. Outside the building there are facts.
One of the most fundamental responsibilities of marketing is to keep a pulse on what’s going on in the market. The easiest place to measure that pulse is with your own customer base, but we need to uncover what our customers really want because they often can’t think out of their current paradigm to consider something new or revolutionary.
3 Reasons Why the Customer Isn’t Always Right
If customers don’t know the answer, they make it up: I found this hard to believe when I first heard this, but according to Steven Pinker and some pretty interesting research he outlines in his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, if we don’t know the answer, we make it up. In a nutshell, different parts of the brain process information differently. When patients without a connection between the brain halves (some people are born with this condition and it’s a treatment for others with rare neurological maladies) are asked questions, if one side of the brain didn’t know the answer and couldn’t communicate with the other side, it would make one up.
This is relevant to us because subconsciously, if we don’t know the answer to a question like, “Do you prefer the red package or the blue package?” we make it up. This is the problem with reliance on customer feedback. Although it might be unintentional, human nature compels us to provide an appropriate answer (even if it’s not true). Focus groups (or asking your customers) might be a good data point, but the human propensity to make stuff up makes those opinions unreliable.
There are numerous marketing anecdotes lamenting products that failed miserably after exhausting focus group research. The only way to really tell what you’re customers will do is not to ask, but to give them a choice and watch them choose.
Customer expectations are not always rational: In fairness, sometimes we allow, and even facilitate unrealistic expectations with our customers. Spinning the real story about a product or service to make it sound sexier than it really is sets up the situation for an unhappy customer down the road. A few years back I picked up Darrell Huff’s book, How to Lie with Statistics, and have since become a real skeptic of the “data” most marketing cites to make their products look good.
Marketers and sales people are accused of doing this all the time, but politicians have made it an art form. I don’t think it matters on which side of the aisle they sit, I only trust half of the statistics they cite. Most of the time politicians will, for the short-term gain of an election, twist and manipulate the truth to suit their needs. Hence, at the beginning of every election cycle there are folks who feel that they were mislead by the promises made by the guy or gal trying to get re-elected.
Even considering all the blame we probably deserve, some customers will have unrealistic expectations no matter what we do. Some of our customers hear what they want to hear and have unrealistic expectations without any of our help at all. “I thought the fertilizer you put on my lawn would have killed all the weeds in 24 hours!” “My car doesn’t get 10 more miles per gallon after the tune-up you just charged me $200 for, I want my money back!” OR, “This new suit didn’t get me the job I just interviewed for!”
There have been many times over the course of my career when I’ve had to sit across the desk or on the other end of the phone with a customer who had unrealistic expectations. It’s never easy and there are even those who have made it a matter of course to complain knowing that most of us will eventually cave and give them an additional discount or something free to placate them. In that sense, I’ve remained true to my Father’s direction to always try to keep the customer happy. However, I also have to admit that I’ve grumbled under my beard at a number of customers and their unrealistic expectations.
Those companies that look beyond what their customers say or what they ask for and spend the time to discover what they really need seem to be the businesses that really succeed. If you’ve experienced this in your business, please share your experiences here.